Mamma Africa

Irene with kids

“One night I woke up to hear a rustling outside. I could hear men talking, then it got louder and, finally, they broke down my caravan door and came barging in. I was lying in bed in my nightgown. I sat up to see double-barrelled shotguns pointing down at me. Time stood still. I remember thinking: ‘They look like buffalo’s noses.’

“I’d heard about these men. They’d been on a rampage in villages, killing people, stealing… and I thought: ‘My time’s up. They’re going to kill me.’ Then above my bed, I read a verse from the Bible I’d taped up there: Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid or terrified because of them, for your Lord goes with you. I thought, ‘I’m not ready to go. They need to get out of my caravan!’ I stood up, pushed their guns aside, and yelled at them, screaming for them to get out, and said: ‘God is watching!’

“All of them left. Just like that. Maybe they took a radio, but I didn’t die that night.”

This not the first attack Irene Gleeson AO has fought off during her time in Uganda, and it’s unlikely to be her last. But it hasn’t stopped her forging ahead with her charity, Childcare Kitgum Servants (CKS), through which she feeds, clothes and educates war-affected children across the unforgiving Ugandan countryside.

Asked about her toughest challenge, though, and her face falls as she recalls the days immediately following that attack.

“After that night, my second husband who was there said he needed a break. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen that sort of violence. He said he needed some time in a big city, in civilisation, with running water… He packed his bags and left. I got a letter from him a few months later: he said he’d met someone else, an African woman, who was going to look after him and he wasn’t coming back. I didn’t have time to take care of him anymore, to cook for him, so he found a woman who could.

“That was the lowest point in my life. I remember thinking: ‘What am I doing here? Sitting in the dirt, no electricity, on my own, living in a caravan…’ I was battling with depression; I was really struggling to focus. I hit a low point there. But I made a decision to stay: I pulled myself up and kept going.”

A mother of four children herself, Irene Gleeson made the tough decision to leave them back in 1991 to set up her school in Africa. Her youngest daughter, Heidi, was just 21 years’ old at the time.

“I went over to Uganda a few years after Mum left – I was 23,” says Heidi. “I was in shock for the three months I was there: Mum was living in caravan, there were rebels around, the food was awful, there was no electricity. I had never experienced anything like it in my life.”

So why would a woman in her mid-forties, living a comfortable life on the beach in Narrabeen, sell her house, leave her kids and grandkids and ship a caravan to the middle of a warzone in Africa?

“I had a sponsor child in Ethiopia that I’d visited in 1988,” says Irene. “I was moved by the children, by their plight. At the time, thousands of children were at risk of abduction and being forced into child soldiers. They needed help.”

Her decade of teaching experience – Irene graduated from UTS with a Diploma in Teaching in 1979 – prepared her for the challenge ahead, as did her own poverty-stricken upbringing.

Her father, an American soldier, fled the country before she was born – “I remember being called a bastard as I was growing up” – and, over the years, she had suffered at the hands of abusive stepfathers. At the age of 15, Irene was confronted with her mother’s death: she found out when two men wheeled a coffin into the local church and she read her mother’s name on top. The eldest of eight, she was left to raise her seven younger siblings.

In the late 1950s, she fled the family home and the burden of responsibilities to marry and later had four children with her first husband.

It was her subsequent divorce in 1988 that sent her searching for answers: “It left me disillusioned and seeking a purpose,” she says.

Mum and Baby

Moved by the challenges facing children in Africa, Irene bought a caravan, shipped it across the Indian Ocean and drove overland to where the worst of the fighting was in Uganda.

“When I arrived in Kitgum in 1991, just south of the Sudan border, I was shocked. It was a community of aged widows and desperately hungry children trying to scratch food from a harsh land.”

At first, Irene sat under a mango tree and taught a handful of children songs and basic lessons. Then she began reading and writing lessons and providing food and basic medicines. Soon, her classes swelled to a thousand kids, with many walking for hours from their huts to attend her school.

Slowly, buildings were constructed, electricity was installed, teachers, nurses, counsellors and cooks were recruited and supplies were shipped to the far-flung town. Now, in 2010, Irene oversees the operation of three schools, a 60-bed AIDS hospice, a radio station, non-denominational churches, a vocational college and a community centre that supports 10,000 children, many of them former child soldiers.

“My kids go home and sleep in mid huts on a dirt floor on a plastic bag. Insects come up through the dirt, bite them, and then go back down underground during the day. I can’t afford to build them houses, but at least they can come here, to a full day-care school, between 7.30 and 4.30 to they get their water, they get their food, they get their medicine and they get an education,” says Irene.

“We’ve got so many graduates now. One is studying medicine in Algeria; another has just got a degree in sports science, he’s now employed in South Africa…

“What drives me is pulling everybody up to their full potential.”

Her latest mission is to establish a creative arts centre for art, literature, poetry, dance, music and drama.

“The kids have spent 20 years running from conflict, so nobody’s been doing the arts – I love art. Decades of war has muted our children: I’m trying to cultivate their own expression.”

One of her ‘children’, George Lubega – known by his stage name of Exodus – recently won Uganda’s top gospel artist award and has become a well-known personality in central Africa. He will be travelling to Australia with Irene in November to perform at the School Spectacular in Sydney.

“George was thrown out of home and called a bastard by his stepmother. He was only 10 years’ old. That’s what drove him to the streets. That’s why his hit song is called, ‘I am not a bastard’. George is now encouraging former child soldiers to exchange guns for guitars – he’s a real role model for the kids.”

After her decades of hard work and sacrifices, Irene Gleeson was recently recognised by the Australian Government in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being made an Officer of the Order of Australia. She proudly displays the medal in its presentation box.

“When I was getting the medal, Don Burke from Burke’s Backyard was there. I went up to him and said: ‘You’re my hero! I’ve been in Africa for 20 years and when I arrived everyone was living in mud huts. I brought all this knowledge I had learnt from Burke’s Backyard and now we’re constructing four-story buildings!” She laughs.

Despite the honour, it is still a battle to source the funding required to run CKS. Operating costs exceed $1.5 million per annum: the food bill alone is $500,000. Most of her funds come from Australians who sponsor CKS children, donating $35 a month.

She recalls a story of a Sydney-based sponsor who posted a soccer ball to their sponsored child.

“He was only a little boy,” says Irene. “So the sponsor asked me to make sure none of the big boys took his ball. I had a talk to them and made sure this wouldn’t happen.

“Days later, the little boy came back and he was crying. I said: ‘What’s the matter? Did those big boys take your ball?!’ He said, sobbing, ‘Can I share it with them? Please, can I share it with them?’ He was so upset he wasn’t allowed to share.

“Privacy, territory and possessions are all communal in Africa. There’s no sense of ownership. They really think differently to us.”

Volunteers are also of huge assistance to the CKS operations. With a staff of around 400, many of whom are paid locals, CKS simply can’t afford to pay for foreign expertise.

“I love self-motivated people with a lot of initiative,” says Irene. “A 72-year-old Irish headmistress is coming over next month: she’s been before. I just say, ‘Go! On your way!’ and she heads off to a school 30km away – she digs in, helps out, does whatever she can. When she comes back, she looks ten years younger!”

Assistance is also set to come in the form of Mia Farrow, actress and humanitarian, who recently met Irene and some of her kids at the African Youth Forum. She’s planning to return to Uganda to work with Irene and her team for two months.

Talking in her daughter’s kitchen in North Ryde, Irene flits between the toaster, the bookshelf (digging around for CKS newsletters) and her laptop, where she’s searching for Exodus’ latest single. At the age of 65, it’s clear her energy is not waning.

“Who’d want to retire? Sit around the house, watch tellie and wait to die?” She says. “How boring!”

Of course with four children in NSW, and 15 grandchildren, she does miss home – which draws her back for long visits each year. But her future lies in Africa, not Australia, she says.

“Their respect for elderly is much more beautiful in Africa than here [in Australia]. The kids fight over me: they say, ‘You’re going to live with me when you’re old!’ ‘No, you’re going to live with me!’

“I’m not living with anyone,” she says, laughing. “I’m not going to depend on anybody. I’m just going to drop dead one day. When I’m 87. That’ll be long enough.”

Irene Gleeson will also be featured in an upcoming book, Missionaries in Action, published by Ark House Press.

Words: Chrissa Favaloro
Images: © Irene Gleeson